Commentary

Rivals ready for the next chapter

Stanford trails 21-5 in all-time series, but matchup has often produced great games

Originally Published: December 18, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Credit Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer with not trying to turn the Cardinal's 21-year series against Tennessee into something it hasn't really been.

[+] EnlargeGlory Johnson
Don McPeak/US PresswireTwo of the most breathtaking athletes in women's college hoops, Glory Johnson (above) and Nneka Ogwumike, will match up Saturday.

"We haven't held up our end of the bargain in terms of a rivalry," she said, referring to Tennessee's 21-5 advantage. "But I think we have had good games with them."

Yes, that's true. But Stanford has had a Vanderbilt-esque experience against Tennessee, sometimes seeing victories snatched away in the final seconds, sometimes playing well only in one half, sometimes having the game slowly but torturously wrested away. And sometimes getting clobbered.

Three of the meetings have been in the NCAA tournament, and each was a different agony for Stanford to endure. In the 1991 semifinals, defending national champion Stanford fell by eight points. In the 2004 Elite Eight, the margin was only two. But then in the 2008 NCAA title game, after an emotional win over UConn in the semis, Stanford was steamrolled by Tennessee 64-48.

All of which contributes to Saturday's 2:30 p.m. ET game at Maples Pavilion having a different "feel" than has so often been the case in this series. Both teams are undefeated, but No. 2 Stanford definitely is considered the favorite this time against third-ranked Tennessee.

Of course, you might have said the same thing last season, when coach Pat Summitt's team lost 11 games and had -- for that program -- a historically down season. But Tennessee still managed to beat Stanford by 10 points in overtime. Not that it was stunning, either then or in retrospect.

That was the thing about Tennessee's 2008-09 "Baby Vols." It didn't surprise you when they put the pieces together and played up to their blue-chip potential. It wasn't as if Summitt had brought a bunch of palookas in to replace Candace Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike.

However, it quickly became apparent that it was a team capable of bumbling and crumbling unlike any previous one Summitt had. Hopefully for their sake, the Tennessee-loathers thoroughly enjoyed that while it lasted. Because that, uh, "era" is already over.

"I think they have a terrific team; they are much improved from last year," VanDerveer said. "That's the great thing about freshmen becoming sophomores. They have every weapon at every position, and they're playing very well."

Indeed, players such as Shekinna Stricklen (16 ppg) and Glory Johnson (13.2 ppg) have more of that second-year poise. That's something Summitt especially wants to see more of in Johnson.

"She's our best athlete; the one word I use with her all the time is composure, composure, composure," Summitt said. "When she gets in [a high-profile] environment, a lot of times she goes for everything."

Junior Angie Bjorklund (14.4 ppg) saddled herself with the "guilt" of not taking charge a year ago, so she has done exactly that this season.

Kelley Cain, the 6-foot-6 center who has dealt with knee problems and foul trouble, is the rock down low for Tennessee as long as she has able to stay on the court.

"They are really different without her out there," VanDerveer said of Cain.

The other starter for Tennessee is a freshman, Taber Spani, who like Bjorklund has the ability to stretch defenses with her perimeter shooting. She's also the daughter of a linebacker; Gary Spani is the all-time tackles leader for both Kansas State and the Kansas City Chiefs.

[+] EnlargeNnemkadi Ogwumike
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireNneka Ogwumike is Stanford's top scorer at 19.9 ppg.

Her older sister, Shalin, plays hoops for Kansas State, and there was great hope in the Sunflower State that Taber also would don the purple. But orange is definitely her color (and Tennessee fans are well aware she has three younger sisters).

Speaking of sisters, the Cardinal will have two sibling stars next season, when top recruit Chiney Ogwumike joins big sis Nneka at Stanford. Not that the Cardinal have any lack of post-playing firepower as it is this year.

Ogwumike is the top scorer at 19.9 ppg. Kayla Pedersen is at 19.5, although she's not only a post player. VanDerveer even said she might use Pedersen at the shooting-guard position at times Saturday because of Tennessee's great size at the perimeter: Bjorklund is 6 feet and Stricklen and Spani are both 6-2.

Center Jayne Appel (13.5 ppg, team-high 9.3 rpg) will take on Cain, a battle that VanDerveer hopes could result in something she has been waiting for.

"I don't think Jayne's busted out; she's not had a breakout, get-after-it game," VanDerveer said. "And this would be really exciting -- to see her go head-to-head with Kelley Cain and see what's going on there."

Indeed, some of the individual matchups will be very intriguing. Ogwumike and Johnson are two of the most breathtaking athletes in women's college hoops now.

"The women's game needs that athleticism," VanDerveer said. "That's what makes it exciting. … That's why I feel that it is really important that our officiating doesn't let it become a wrestling match and take away the athleticism that we want to showcase for our fans."

There really is a lot to showcase, both for what's expected to be a crazed and loud capacity crowd at Maples and an intrigued television audience (the game will be televised on Fox Sports).

"They run triangle [offense] really, really well," Summitt said. "Fortunately, we run some triangle, too, and hopefully that will help us not be as off guard when they make their backdoor cuts. They read so well."

Stanford is in the midst of playing Duke, Tennessee and UConn back-to-back-to-back. And while the Cardinal is considered to have the edge Saturday, there are those historical demons Stanford is also going up against.

The series started in 1988, when Tennessee native Jennifer Azzi was at Stanford. Neither VanDerveer nor Summitt could have predicted then that it would become a yearly tradition. There are fans of both teams who could give you chapter and verse of the entire two decades (the Stanford version would be a significantly more melancholy version, of course).

While this matchup has none of the animosity that UConn-Tennessee does, don't ever underestimate how much it means to Stanford and its fans to add another victory against the Orange Crush.

But also understand all the players on this Tennessee team feel they are either redeeming themselves for last season or proving themselves because they're rookies. It's not a stretch to say this might be the most earnest-looking Tennessee group you've ever seen. (Warning: Even if you are a loather, you might find yourself liking them.)

Now that Summitt has listened to fans' pleas and put the players' names on the backs of their jerseys again -- hallelujah! -- they are more instantly identifiable (names do make it easier). Frankly, the legendary Tennessee uniform looks complete again.

And what's not to enjoy about Stanford? A team that combines skill, athleticism, grace and intelligence as well as any fan could hope to see. Coming off a 71-55 victory over Duke on Tuesday, the Cardinal enter this game against Tennessee on a wave VanDerveer hopes continues through a visit to Connecticut on Dec. 23.

"Before the Duke game, I can tell, we are practicing and are focused in a December way that I have never seen before," she said. "I can [usually] see it maybe the week before we play Tennessee. But this has been the whole season, and I think it's great for us."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.